Towards a new history of social rights

Ukraine’s Ambassador to the UN Sergiy Kyslytsya addresses the UN General Assembly meeting where member countries are to vote on Russia’s suspension from the Human Rights Council due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine at the United Nations headquarters in New York, in April 2022. EFE/ EPA/JASON SZENES


Social and economic rights, social rights for short, have never beensecond generation rights.” Since the 1970s, it has been widely accepted that social rights (such as the right to food, work, education and health care) emerged in the 20th century, as socialist additions to human rights. “first generation” liberal civilians and politicians of the Enlightenment and Age of Revolutions. The persistence of this faulty timeline has obscured a much deeper story, one that the new book Social rights and political obligation in history explore.

To illuminate the challenges of realizing social rights across the centuries and around the world, the volume focuses on the struggles to determine the duty bearers for these rights and the means by which these rights were to be implemented. This “policy of obligation” has changed considerably over time.

In late medieval and early modern Europe, the poor were legally entitled to welfare. Although the term “charity” was used to describe this help, the obligation to be charitable was not only moral but also legal, and the courts applied these laws.

The advent of the principles of liberty, equality, national sovereignty and international law in the modern era has upset these old patterns of social rights and obligations. Surprisingly, these are the Enlightenment proponents of a free market society – the French physiocrats – who first articulated social rights in a constitutional idiom.

These political economists and their French revolutionary supporters believed that social rights would be achieved once property was freed from the inefficiencies of feudal obligations and monopolistic privileges. Because the economy would grow, they said, workers would have jobs, food, and general welfare. People unable to work due to age or infirmities could still receive charity, but charity was now to be given freely and no longer a legal obligation. In this new world of individual freedom, the voluntary means of markets and philanthropy would guarantee social rights.

Rather than grow, however, the French revolutionary economy collapsed. Around 1793, Jacobin Revolutionaries opened up the much-contested and unevenly implemented possibility of the state providing the means for well-being. But this required taxes and market regulations, which many saw as a threat to property rights. Violent struggles over property, taxes and redistribution followed, igniting the politics of the “terror” phase of the Revolution.

In the aftermath, both liberals and radicals of the 19th century turned their backs on social rights. Liberals either clung to their faith in free markets (supplemented by philanthropy) or conceded that the state could provide aid, but only as a a matter of discretionary policynot as a matter of constitutional law.

Meanwhile, socialists have either rejected human rights altogether as the nonsense of the capitalist bourgeoisie, or, like the physiocrats a century before, persuaded themselves that social rights would be achieved once societal institutions would be based on the right principles – in this case, reciprocity and solidarity rather than private ownership and market competition.

The revival of social rights at the turn of the 20th century was due to liberals who ended up admitting that the State owed a right to the well-being of individuals and to socialists and organized labor finally trusting the State to guarantee it. Such a consensus has emerged on social rights that even totalitarian regimes, like the USSRfelt obliged to recognize them.

Yet even as this consensus has formed, older views have persisted, undermining it. Some continued to insist that markets were more effective than states in ensuring welfare. Others believed that the democratization of economic power would go further than the welfare state in mitigating the inequalities produced by capitalism.

But mitigating socio-economic inequalities was one thing; eradicating the hierarchies of social difference was another. This latest volume, published in January 2022, shows that social rights have had an ambivalent relationship with social differences defined by gender, ethnicity and religion. In some contexts, demands for social rights have been motivated by a desire to rectify historical injustices. Social differences thus served as the basis for the claim of social rights.

In other contexts, social rights have reinforced social differences, as in the middle of the 20th century France or Japan, where husbands and fathers received special compensation that was denied to wives, who had to stay at home. One can sympathize with social rights while nevertheless recognizing their potential to perpetuate, and even exacerbate, unequal power relations. In short, how social rights are implemented matters.

Social rights were integral to the internationalization of the human rights project after World War II. Their meanings have been disputed but the 1948 Universal Declaration brought some definitional clarity, binding them more firmly to the principle of non-discrimination. In this context, social rights helped move the work forward on civil and political rights and were clearly beneficial to the evolution of the broader international human rights framework.

One can sympathize with social rights while nevertheless recognizing their potential to perpetuate, and even exacerbate, unequal power relations. In short, how social rights are implemented matters.

Our volume examines the ideological differences on social rights in the post-war period. It also examines how the politics of obligation began to play out internationally. For example, the case of the African inhabitants of the territories under the trusteeship of the United Nations who ask in the United Nations Trusteeship Council in the 1950sseeking protection of their lands and livelihoods from predatory colonial powers, illustrates the internationalization of struggles for social rights and the nature of state obligations in the context of late colonial rule.

And indeed, the history of social rights after 1945 rests largely on the question of decolonization and its consequences. With decolonization, former colonial powers could shirk responsibility for the extreme inequalities they had created in their former colonies and shift neglected human rights responsibilities to newly independent nations.

Yet the leaders of these new nations have used their sovereignty to advance the state’s developmental agendas and avoid scrutiny for a wide range of human rights abuses. In this sense, decolonization turned out to be the ideal storm to deny social rights. It was in this sad context that human rights entered the 1970s.

A deeper history of social rights can help us identify the factors that have hindered the human rights project. It makes us aware of the importance of social obligation. Understanding the politics surrounding the obligation throughout history can help us better calibrate our human rights discourse in a time of climate change, pandemics, and growing global inequality.

Basically, Social Rights and the Politics of Obligation in History shows that social rights have always been important in the history of human rights and why there are research and practice programs to be developed. More importantly, it calls on us to refocus social rights in the global human rights imagination.

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